It was purely by chance that John Stevens met Frank Gesualdi, at a time when both were looking to start something new.
Stevens, director of special projects at TILL (Toward Independent Living and Learning), a nonprofit human services agency that offers day programs and vocational training, was looking for land to rent, where adults with physical disabilities and cognitive skills could learn to cultivate. Gesualdi wanted to sell his Boston restaurant, Davide, and take a year off to become a farmer. Both were enrolled in the same business class, but it wasn’t until Gesualdi presented his business plan that Stevens took note of it.
“It turns out that Frank’s wife works with people with disabilities and he actually had kids in his class. [visit the farm] and that was going to be part of his business plan – to try to connect with some of the schools in the area, ”Stevens said. “So I thought we should talk, and we did and here we are.”
“Here” is an 11 acre farm on Red Acre Road in Stow, where Gesualdi has lived with his family for 11 years. He registered as a farmer in February 2014 and has been working the land ever since, with the help of TILL trainee farmers. Three Boys Farm, named after Gesualdi’s three sons, sells produce, eggs, flowers, and meat, including Thanksgiving turkeys. On a hot sunny September day, hens ran across the lawn, while a rooster crowed from the hen house. Turkeys huddled in cages, cackling greetings, sheep bleating in a nearby enclosure, and a plane circled above us. Meanwhile, TILL workers were preparing the beds for fall planting. Dressed in shorts and a t-shirt, a baseball cap perched on his head, Gesualdi, seemingly oblivious to the noises, discussed his plans for the farm and his desire to make a difference in the world.
“You can’t run a restaurant like you run a farm or a farm like a restaurant,” he said. “You have to work at a different pace and see what they’re capable of – some like to sweep, some like to feed animals, some like to pick peppers and produce. That’s what is gratifying to see them.
Almost 30 people from TILL rotated the farm during the summer; all attend with members of the TILL staff. Throughout the day, they accomplish a myriad of tasks – they collect eggs, pick and sort produce, feed the animals, weed gardens, plant seeds and clean chicken coops.
“The hardest thing to do is learn who is capable of doing what,” said Gesualdi.
With different people coming in every day, it’s also difficult to get consistency, Stevens said.
“Our hope is that at some point we will have six people coming here every day,” he said. “And then we can really get into the business of teaching them how to farm. These people need a lot of consistency, ”adding with a chuckle,“ Frank could probably use a little consistency as well. “
It’s the small triumphs, however, that make it worth it. Gesualdi pointed to a young man working in the fields; his name is Steven. When Steven first arrived, Gesualdi said, he didn’t like animals. Now he is approaching the animals. Another girl from Billerica was afraid of chickens on her first visit. The second week she got a little closer and the third week she was walking inside the henhouse.
“It’s nice to see the progress,” he said.
“Part of the key is [Gesualdi] give everyone a chance, ”Stevens said. “He doesn’t assume that people can’t do something until he sees that they can’t do it.”
“I’m making them do something else,” Gesualdi said, neutrally.
Stevens said Gesualdi is also good at finding tasks to suit individual abilities.
“He’s had incredible success with some people,” Stevens said, noting that a woman who works on the farm is constantly on the move. Gesualdi tasked her with gathering the tools and putting them away at the end of the day, giving her the ability to keep walking and be productive at the same time.
The goal of the program, Stevens said, is “to give people the ability to farm and, at some point, actually teach people to farm and that’s what they will be – farmers.” It will be their job.
Gesualdi does not have any special education training, but rather treats TILL interns as he would anyone else.
“People are intimidated by [people with special needs], “he said.” They don’t understand them. I’m joking with them. They like to be treated regularly.
“Part of the beauty is that he talks to them the same way he talks to me,” Stevens said. “Everyone has things they’re good at and things they’re not good at. They are no different from everyone.
Gesualdi spent time teaching autistic children how to cook when he owned his restaurant.
“My wife’s friends have autistic children, so they were coming [to Davide restaurant]. I would take them to the kitchen and cook something for them and bring it back to the table, ”he said. “It was pretty fulfilling.”
He continues to share his love of cooking with TILL interns, and has taught them how to make homemade omelets, soup and pasta for lunch.
While he admits there are days when he feels like pulling his hair out, there are rewards in teaching people how to cultivate, and Gesualdi plans to keep going.
“For me, they don’t have a disability. I treat them like everyone else, ”he said.
He has only one regret since the start of his farm.
“I should have bought a bigger one [tractor]. “